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Recasting the Definition of Family

Policymakers are extending greater legal recognition, support to same-sex couples, single parents, unmarried heterosexuals.

September 14, 2003|David Crary | Associated Press Writer

William Carter's family doesn't fit the mold forged by early sitcoms or Dick-and-Jane storybooks, but the single gay man and his three adopted sons were honored recently as the National Adoption Center's Family of the Year.

Not an earth-shattering event by itself, yet it epitomized a steady, profound change in Americans' concept of family -- a development that some find heartening and others horrifying, but in any event seems to be quickening.

The traditional archetype of a mother, father and children still holds sway across much of America, although it now accounts for less than 25% of the nation's households. Many politicians, preachers and conservative activists envision that archetype when they speak in defense of "family values."

Yet ruling by ruling, vote by vote, in courtrooms and boardrooms and town halls nationwide, the makers of day-to-day policies are extending greater legal recognition and support to other forms of family -- same-sex couples, unmarried heterosexual couples, single parents.

"Our families are becoming much more commonplace," said Aimee Gelnaw, who has raised two children with her lesbian partner and heads the Family Pride Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"Most people know someone who's lesbian or gay, in their communities, through their kids' schools," she said. "It's through those interactions that people come to understand we all want the same things -- to create safe, loving environments for our kids."

Debate over the American family is not new, but it has taken on extra intensity this summer as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that homosexual sex could not be outlawed and Canada moved to recognize same-sex marriages. Foes of same-sex marriage in the U.S. have been alarmed by the events.

"Marriage at all times and in all civilizations has always meant the union of a man and a woman in a permanent relationship," said the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, president of the 2.6-million member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. "To mess around with it is to threaten the very center of society -- the family as it has been historically and universally understood."

Thirty-seven states have adopted Defense of Marriage Acts in recent years, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and President Bush said he favors a law imposing that definition nationwide. Yet the state statutes, and government initiatives to promote marriage, have not slowed the growing acceptance and recognition of other types of families and relationships:

* Scores of cities, counties and corporations have adopted domestic-partner policies extending rights and benefits to same-sex couples and, in some cases, to unmarried heterosexual couples. The California Senate is considering a sweeping bill, approved by the state Assembly, that would grant same-sex partners most of the same spousal rights and responsibilities as married couples.

* The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in June that people in long-term relationships, married or not, can sue over loss of companionship when their loved one is injured. Lawyers say the ruling sets the groundwork for same-sex couples to file such claims.

* The supreme courts of Massachusetts and New Jersey are considering lawsuits filed by same-sex couples demanding the right to marry. The number of newspapers publishing announcements of same-sex unions has climbed past 200, more than triple the figure in 2001.

* Civil rights lawyers are pressing a federal lawsuit against a Florida law that prohibits adoptions by gays, the only one of its kind in the country. The Indiana Court of Appeals recently ruled that a woman could adopt her lesbian partner's three children, rejecting a lower court ruling that the women could not both adopt because they aren't married.

A generation ago, adoptions by single people were rare. Now, about one-third of all adoptions in the United States are by single parents, mostly women, but also a growing number of men like Carter.

A property manager at a Philadelphia apartment complex, Carter has adopted three boys -- ages 10, 11 and 16 -- within the last three years.

"I always wanted to be a father," Carter said. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to me.... I would do anything for my boys."

He said he has received steady support from relatives, his employer and adoption agency staff.

"They didn't push me under the rug; they didn't talk down to me," he said. "The only advice they gave was that I shouldn't be looking for a perfect child because there isn't one."

Gloria Hochman of the National Adoption Center said adoption agencies are gradually overcoming their hesitancies about single men because of the track record established by divorced fathers who, in growing numbers, are gaining custody of their children.

"When we opened our doors 30 years ago, it never occurred to me that we'd be giving our Family of the Year award to a single man," Hochman said. "We didn't think they'd be interested."

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